Who is the Man of Sin?

(2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)

Who is the man of lawlessness of 2 Thessalonians 2? And who is his restrainer? The man of sin, that son of perdition, often finds himself in an Antichrist mashup, used to color a shadowy world leader who is said to rise and take over the world in the last days. In this lesson, we’ll take a closer look at the man of sin and identify a few candidates.


  • Establish the timing for the fulfillment of this prophecy
  • Review the four different views on the son of perdition
  • Become familiar with Josephus’ picture of life during the Great Revolt of Judea
  • Answer the question, “Who is the man of lawlessness?”


Touted as one of the toughest passages in the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 has defied theologians ever since the early days of the Church. In his City of God, completed by 426 AD, early Church father Augustine of Hippo writes of the general confusion surrounding this passage and its harrowing imagery of the Antichrist.

“Then as for the words, ‘And now ye know what withholds,’ i.e., ye know what hindrance or cause of delay there is, ‘that he might be revealed in his own time;’ they show that he was unwilling to make an explicit statement, because he said that they knew. And thus, we who have not their knowledge wish and are not able even with pains to understand what the apostle referred to, especially as his meaning is made still more obscure by what he adds. For what does he mean by ‘For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now holds, let him hold until he be taken out of the way: and then shall the wicked be revealed?’ I frankly confess I do not know what he means.” (City of God, Book XX, Ch XIX.)

Yes, even Augustine says, “I just don’t know.”

Who is the Man of Lawlessness (Son of Perdition)?

The only place we see the “man of lawlessness” title in Scripture is in 2 Thessalonians 2. Writing in the early 50’s AD, Paul shifts from discussing Christ’s return on the last day (sometimes called Judgment Day, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12) and now addresses a more immediate concern for the young church in Thessalonica. Time is running out: 20 years have passed since Jesus sat upon the Mount of Olives and predicted a time of terrible tribulation. Paul writes,

1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the Temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will consume with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 ESV)

The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him (v1); This is the same coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the same gathering to him mentioned in Jesus’s Olivet Discourse. This gathering was foretold all the way back in Genesis 49:10: “…until Shiloh come [the Messiah, the one to be sent] and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” and is referred to across Scripture (Isaiah 56:8, Matthew 24:31, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, etc.)

Not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us (v2); Thessalonica, located in Greece, is 918 miles (1,477 kilometers) from Jerusalem; news from the Holy City would be slow to reach them. Still, why would they be worried about their brothers and sisters in Christ at Jerusalem?

That the day of the Lord has come (v2); Normally, I hold up the King James version as a solid Bible translation, but—beside slow-wading through the Old English—there are a few places where it creates confusion; this is one. The KJV translates “day of the Lord” (“Lord”, Kyriou, Strong’s 2962) here as “day of Christ” (“Christ”, Christō, Strong’s 5547) but, as we’ve seen throughout the Prophecy Course, the day of the Lord is a Jewish phrase for national judgment at the hands of a foreign invading army. The day of Christ—mentioned in passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12—is the event known as the Second Coming; Christ’s bodily return at the end of human history. These are two separate events! This seemingly arbitrary mistranslation of “Lord” by the King James is confusing and unhelpful at best. Thankfully, almost all modern Bible versions correct this passage to “day of the Lord” helping us understand Paul is talking about the impending judgment Jesus promised from the Mount of Olives, to occur within that generation. Since we know this judgment fell in 70 AD—and we know Paul is writing this letter in the early 50’s—this man of lawlessness had to present sometime in the 50’s or 60’s.

For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition (v3); Here the Greek word for “rebellion” is apostasia, Strong's 646, meaning defection, apostasy (as in defection from truth) or revolt. Literally known to Jews today as “the Great Revolt,” that rebellion did come, sparking the Jewish-Roman War which lasted for seven years. First igniting in 66 AD as a result of over-taxation and religious tension between the Jewish nation and pagan Rome, the war climaxed with the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70—fulfilling verse 2’s day of the Lord! The war eventually ended in 73 with the capture of the final Jewish rebel stronghold, the mountaintop fortress of Masada.

Our window has now narrowed; we’re looking for a figure who emerged in the mid-to-late 60’s, after the rebellion began. Moreover, it appears the man of lawlessness may be connected to that incoming Jewish rebellion. Translated as “man of sin,” by some manuscripts, Paul proceeds to tell us more about this son of perdition…

Who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the Temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God (v4); It’s here that modern Bible students who miss the time indicators in the preceding verses end up either 1) spiritualizing the “Temple of God” to mean the Christian Church, as is clearly done in Ephesians 2:19-22, 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1 and 1 Peter 2:4-5, or 2) they make the case for a third, future Jewish Temple where an Antichrist figure will establish himself on a literal throne and begin accepting worship.

However, when in Matthew 23:2, Jesus says the Pharisees “sit in the seat of Moses,” He isn’t saying they sit upon a literal throne that once belonged to Moses. Jesus means the Pharisees hold the role of leading Israel, just as Moses led their ancestors. With this understanding then, we recognize our candidates for lawlessness may indeed literally take their seat in the Temple of God, or they may simply exalt themselves over Israel in some way, so we’ll keep our eyes open for that as well.

Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. (v5-7); Paul is rebuffing the Thessalonian church; they’ve discussed this at length. This outlaw-in-waiting is alive and operating, a contemporary to Paul and the Thessalonians, but is currently restrained or held back from full-on lawlessness. It is probably worth mentioning, a reformed Pharisee of the highest order, Paul would consider thee “law” to be the Mosaic Law, so “lawlessness” would be an affront to Jewish law.

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will consume with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (v8); The lawless one will be revealed during this time of rebellion and apostacy. We are talking about a man; not a generation or political system. Jesus’ day of the Lord judgment will reduce this man of lawlessness to nothing. (cf. Isaiah 11:4; 30:27-33; Daniel 7:8, 19-28; Hosea 6:5.)

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore, God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (v9-12); The powers of darkness continue to seduce, entice and blind those who give themselves to iniquity. Just as we see the Satanic princes of Persia and Greece referenced in Daniel 10:13 and 20, here we catch another glimpse behind the veil. As Pharaoh was hardened, those who take pleasure in unrighteousness are fanned into deeper blindness, falling prey to “wicked deception.” Who refused to love the truth and so be saved? Jerusalem, who rejected her Messiah.

4 Lenses for Understanding This Prophecy

With this foundation, it’s time to unpack the varying views surrounding the son of perdition. Since the man of lawlessness is so closely tied to his restrainer, we’ll consider both the identities of the man of sin and his restrainer for each view.


I mention this view first, not due to its foremost accuracy but popularity. If you’re heard anything about the man of lawlessness in the past two centuries, it’s probably a variation of this view. This ever-future Antichrist-beast dictator will step onto the world stage in the last days and strike a treaty with the Jews. According to some teachers, he may even be the one to build that third Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and restore the old Temple sacrifices. World peace is short-lived, however. This man of lawlessness breaks the treaty, takes his seat in the “Temple of God” and demands worship, thereby becoming the abomination of desolation. The planet enters the Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of hell on earth, but the Christians don’t care because they’ve been raptured up to heaven by this point. The Spirit-filled Church was, after all, the restrainer, holding back rampant depravity from filling the earth.

Objections to this view: Some spiritualize “man of sin” to represent a reprobate generation in the end-times. Or, they futurize, casting him off a couple thousand years into our near-future. Yet, Paul considers the man of sin to be a contemporary. As he writes his epistle, Jerusalem’s Temple still stands; Paul is not referring to a future Temple thousands of years later. Had Paul been referring to an antagonist in the distant future, this portion of his letter would have been vastly less relevant to the worried Thessalonians. This eschatological Frankenstein knits together Revelation’s beast, John’s antichrists, Daniel’s 70th week, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and Paul’s man of sin into one big, lumbering, movie-making, book-selling monster.


Born with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, this view is only 300 years older than the Dispensational view. Anti-Catholic at its heart, the beast of Revelation symbolizes the Roman Catholic church-state and the man of lawlessness (conflated with Antichrist) represents the papacy. This view holds that a future pope will unite the nations of the world against the faithful remnant of Christianity. You can probably guess who the restrainer is; yes, it’s the Protestant Church herself.

Objections to this view: The 1500s marked the height of popularity for applying the historicist lens to end-times prophecy. Historicism allows its users the fluid flexibility of pinning gradual prophetic fulfillment across human history, and this is what the Reformers did, finding Revelation’s Tribulational consummation in the Catholic Church. However, since John’s definition of antichrist is one who denies Jesus Christ, the Messiah, has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3)—and since there have been no popes to do that yet—this view’s historicist foundation crumbles.

Our next two views share the record for being the oldest, most-established views.


The Catholic Orthodox view sees a vague, future man of sin, an evil world leader who will present in the last days, whom Jesus will crush at His final return before He re-establishes the Holy Roman Empire on earth. This view spiritualizes the restrainer as any opposing philosophical or political system that might be holding this shadowy man of lawlessness in check.

Objections to this view: Like the preceding views, the Catholic Orthodox view misses the “day of the Lord” idiom, falls into ignoring the time restrictions given by Paul and doesn’t quite know what to do with the restrainer. Frankly, I love that this view offers the forerunner of historic premillennialism. Premillennialism is the end-times idea that Jesus will come back to establish an earthly kingdom 1,000 years before Judgment Day. I’m sure I have a few Protestant brethren who might choke on their gum when they discover the earliest vision of the premillennial kingdom was a re-establishment of the Roman Catholic Empire!


As you might guess by its name, this view of the man of sin finds its fulfillment in the past. There are at least two prime candidates for the man of lawlessness in history:


Freshly widowed under suspicious circumstances for the second time, in 49 AD, Agrippina the Younger seduced and married her uncle, Claudius Caesar, the emperor of Rome. She quickly convinced him to adopt her son, Nero, even positioning him above Claudius’ own son, Britannicus. As Paul writes the Thessalonian church, Nero had not yet ascended the throne as he would in only a few short years. We know from history, Nero ran off the rails into depravity and insanity, and by 64 AD, was becoming the greatest persecutor the first-century Church had yet seen. His reign of terror lasted until his death in 68 (say about 3½ years.)

Arguments for Nero include:

  1. With Christian persecution starting after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, the timing of Nero’s lawlessness fits perfectly with our man of sin.
  2. Second-century Roman historian, Dio Cassius, writes in his Roman History, like the Caesars before him, Nero claimed to be divine and accepted emperor worship. On coins used throughout the empire, Nero’s image is depicted with the spiked crown, symbolizing the rays of the sun, a nod to his divinity as Caesar. Though he is never recorded as sitting in the Jewish Temple, Nero certainly exalted himself over objects of worship, even commissioning a colossal statue that fused Apollo’s image with his own.
  3. If Nero is the man of lawlessness, who was his restrainer? Theologian Kenneth Gentry points out,

“The Latin word for ‘restraint’ is claudere, which is similar to ‘Claudius.’ Interestingly, Paul shifts between the neuter and masculine forms of ‘the restrainer’ (2Th 2:6, 7). This may indicate he includes both the imperial law and the present emperor when referring to the ‘restrainer.’ While Claudius lives, Nero, the man of lawlessness, is powerless to commit political lawlessness. Christianity is free from the imperial sword until the Neronic persecution begins.” (Gentry.)

Wait. Claudius’ name literally means “restrain”? Well, that cinches it! Nero has to be the man of lawlessness and Claudius was obviously the restrainer, right?! When Claudius died in 54 (Agrippina being the prime suspect, via a dish of poisonous mushrooms), Nero rose to power! Ta-dah! Mystery solved!

But wait. There’s more.

Objections to this view: Though it seems we’ve got our guy, there are a couple fatal flaws with the Nero theory.

The first five years of Nero’s reign were actually prosperous and thoughtful, due in large part to the shepherding of Agrippina and Nero’s two counselors, Seneca and Sextus. It was these who restrained Nero’s destructive tendencies. Yes, Claudius’ position as emperor held Nero back from taking the throne, however Nero was only 16 when he ascended. History is quiet on how, without any authority, young Nero fulfilled the image of “lawlessness already at work” prior to his ascension.

But maybe the Roman government was the source of this lawlessness? No, Rome highly favored order among its subjugated nations, being quick to quell any uprisings and was well known for its Pax Romana; Roman peace.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, two years before the climax of Israel’s day of the Lord, so he, in no way, could be said to have been “consumed” or “reduced to nothing” by the Lord’s coming. To that end, the day of the Lord fell upon Israel and Jerusalem; not upon Rome who was used as the instrument of judgment. It was Jerusalem who “refused to love the truth and so be saved.”

So, if Nero was not the man of lawlessness, who was?

There is another candidate.

John of Gischala (Yohanan ben Levi)

Our favorite Jewish historian, Josephus, introduces us to our final candidate for the title “man of lawlessness”: Zealot leader, John of Gischala, also known as John of Levi. In book II of his Wars of the Jews, Josephus describes John as a “treacherous person,” “very cunning,” “a ready liar,” thinking it “a point of virtue to delude people [even those dearest to him],” “a hypocritical pretender to humanity,” who “spared not the shedding of blood.” John “had a peculiar knack at thieving,” and gathered “a band of four hundred men, […] vagabonds that had run away from [Tyre’s] villages; and by the means of these he laid waste all Galilee...” (Wars 2.21.1.)

By book IV of Wars, we see the Roman general, Titus, engaged in Rome’s campaign to suppress the Jewish revolt. By this point, all the cities of Galilee have fallen and only the small walled city of Gischala remains. John, with this band thieves, has taken control of the city and petitions Titus to wait overnight on account of the Sabbath. Man of honor he was, Titus agrees and pulls the Roman army back to stay the night at a nearby city. Josephus writes,

“Thus did this man put a trick upon Titus, not so much out of regard to the seventh day as to his own preservation, […]. Now this was the work of God, who therefore preserved this John, that he might bring on the destruction of Jerusalem; as also it was his work that Titus was prevailed with by this pretense for a delay, and that he pitched his camp farther off the city at Cydessa.” (Wars 4.2.3.)

John fled for Jerusalem on horseback that evening, followed by an entourage of about 9,000, including women and children. Unfortunately, when those families couldn’t keep up, John encouraged the men to abandon them under threat of Rome’s wrath. Many did.

Arriving at Gischala the next morning, Titus learned of John’s flight. Furious at being duped, Titus sent soldiers in pursuit. The soldiers soon realized they couldn’t catch John before he reached Jerusalem. On their return, they slayed 6,000 of those who had fled, taking the rest prisoner.

Meanwhile, out of breath at Jerusalem, John and his band were swarmed by thousands of citizens desperate for news of the approaching war. John ennobled his escape, mocked the Roman threat and oversold the Jews’ strength, emboldening the young men to war. The older and wiser of the populace saw through the charade, bitterly dividing the city between the battle-hungry and those lamenting the city’s headlong rush into destruction. This spirit of discord between those wanting war and those eager for peace spread across all Judaea, dividing cities, towns and households. Seditious raids broke out against the peaceful and, once those in the countryside could be robbed of nothing else, troops of these thieves streamed into Jerusalem being welcomed for their illusion of support, but bringing crime and further burdening the city’s resources. These criminals joined the growing army of Zealots who were busy imprisoning and assassinating Jerusalem’s leaders and upper class for their treasonous desire toward peace with Rome. This purge of all opposing authority quickly blazed a trail to the high-priests of the Jewish religious order, whereby these Zealots began replacing the priests with men of their own selection.

Who is the Restrainer of 2 Thessalonians 2?

Though some make the case for John Gischala’s restrainer being King Herod Agrippa II, this Jewish king was loyal to pagan Rome and was more of a thorn in the side of the Jewish priests than for John Gischala. [1]

It’s at this point Josephus introduces us to our candidate for John Gischala’s restrainer, Ananus, son of Ananus, the eldest high-priest:

“Now the [citizens of Jerusalem] were going to rise against [John’s men]. For Ananus, the [oldest] of the High-priests, persuaded them to it. He was a very prudent man, and had perhaps saved the city if he could but have escaped the hands of those that plotted against him. Those men made the Temple of God a strong hold for them, and a place whither they might resort, in order to avoid the troubles they feared from the people: the sanctuary was now become a refuge, and a shop of tyranny. […] they undertook to dispose of the High-priesthood by casting lots for it: whereas, as we have said already, it was to descend by succession in a family. The pretense they made for this strange attempt was an ancient practice, while they said that of old it was determined by lot. But in truth it was no better than a dissolution of an undeniable law, and a cunning contrivance to seize upon the government, derived from those that presumed to appoint governors as they themselves pleased.” (Wars 4.3.7.)

In replacing the priests of the Mosaic Law, the Zealots were establishing despotic rule over Jerusalem. When they finally seized the Temple itself, the people could take no more. High priests, Ananus and Jesus, son of Gamalas, rebuked Jerusalem’s citizens for their passivity and encouraged them to fight back against the Zealots. (Wars 4.3.9,11.) Josephus describes Ananus using terms like “a prodigious lover of liberty,” and “an admirer of a democracy in government” preferring “the public welfare before his own advantage, and […] peace above all things.” [2] Ananus knew it was madness to believe the Jews could conquer the Romans. Unless the Jews used wisdom to deescalate their rebellion against Rome, they would be destroyed. The Zealots had to be stopped.

As Ananus provoked the masses and prepared them to approach the Temple, the Zealots struck. Civil war broke out in the city, pitting experienced Zealot swords against the enraged populace. Overcome by sheer numbers, the Zealots were forced to retreat to the Temple’s inner court. Out of religious reverence for the Law and Temple, Ananus stopped the unpurified crowd from pressing further, beginning the Zealot Temple siege.

During this time, John Gischala had not yet been fully associated with the Zealots; he was still free to move among the people. He positioned himself as an adviser to Ananus, while he secretly fed information to the Zealots bound in the Temple. Selected to negotiate, John presented himself to the Zealots as an ambassador sent to them “by the providence of God” (Wars 4.3.14.) He revealed the city’s preparations, lied about their plans and—having placed ample fear into the Zealots—suggested calling the nearby city of Idumea for help. Idumea responded by sending an army of 20,000 men to Jerusalem. Informed of their approach, Ananus closed the city gates so they could negotiate. Jesus, the high priest, stood on the tower above the Idumeans and explained the situation:

“Those tyrants [the Zealots] that have infringed the rules of our regular tribunals, that have trampled upon our laws, and made their swords the arbitrators of right and wrong; for they have seized upon men of great eminence, and under no accusation, as they stood in the midst of the market-place, and tortured them with putting them into bonds, and, without bearing to hear what they had to say, or what supplications they made, they destroyed them.” (Wars 4.4.3.)

The Idumeans, fueled by Zealot lies and angered at not being allowed into Jerusalem, saw the closed gates as proof that liberty and the Temple itself were truly under attack. That night, a horrible storm buffeted the region as the Idumeans camped outside the city walls, providing the Zealots enough cover to open a gate and allow their allies in. Beginning in the Temple’s outer court, the massacre spread out into the city, with the Idumeans plundering every house and killing everyone they crossed and the Zealots hunting down the high-priests who had defied them.

Restrainer Taken Out of the Way

Ananus and Jesus were quickly captured and killed by the Zealot robbers. Josephus writes,

“I should not mistake if I said that the death of Ananus was the beginning of the destruction of the city, and that from this very day may be dated the overthrow of her wall, and the ruin of her affairs, whereon they saw their high priest, and the procurer of their preservation, slain in the midst of their city.” (Wars 4.5.2.)

Eventually, the Idumeans tired of slaughter, repented and left Jerusalem “seeing they had once been partners with them in shedding the blood of their own countrymen, it was high time to put a stop to such crimes, and not continue to afford any more assistance to such as are subverting the laws of their forefathers;” (Wars 4.5.5.)

With the removal of the Jewish priesthood and the Idumean presence, the Zealots, now led by John, were completely free to ravage Jerusalem. “These men therefore trampled upon all the laws of men; and laughed at the laws of God: and for the oracles of the prophets they ridiculed them, as the tricks of jugglers.” (Wars 4.6.3.) Many of John’s men spiraled into the deepest moral corruption, including plundering the people for sport, murdering the men, abusing the women, even cross-dressing and fornicating with each other,

“And thus did they roll themselves up and down the city, as in a brothel-house, and defiled it entirely with their impure actions; nay, while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and when their gait was effeminate, they presently attacked men, and became warriors, and drew their swords from under their finely dyed cloaks, and ran every body through whom they alighted upon.” (Wars 4.9.10.)

By 69 AD, John was met in his wickedness by two competitors: Eleazar, who defected from John’s Zealots with 2,400 of his men, and Simon bar Giora, who was invited in by the citizens to help them deal with John, just ahead of the Romans’ arrival. And so, the cancer of civil war within Jerusalem’s walls continued to swell, destroying even the city’s food stores which would have allowed Jerusalem to withstand “a siege of many years” (Wars 5.1.4.)

Taking a Seat in the Temple of God

Positioning himself as Jerusalem’s monarch (Wars 4.7.1), John literally held the Temple, “taking his seat in the Temple of God,” already a “refuge, and a shop of tyranny” (Wars 4.3.7.) Eventually, he exalted his own will against even the objects of worship, reasoning on God’s behalf, declaring what was right and essentially placing himself on God’s throne over Israel; in other words, “proclaiming himself to be God.

“But as for John, when he could no longer plunder the people, he betook himself to sacrilege, and melted down many of the sacred utensils, which had been given to the Temple; as also many of those vessels which were necessary for such as ministered about holy things, the caldrons, the dishes, and the tables; […] and said to those that were with him, that it was proper for them to use Divine things, while they were fighting for the Divinity, without fear, and that such whose warfare is for the Temple should live of the Temple; on which account he emptied the vessels of that sacred wine and oil, which the priests kept to be poured on the burnt-offerings, and which lay in the inner court of the Temple, and distributed it among the multitude, […] I suppose, that had the Romans made any longer delay in coming against these villains, that the city would either have been swallowed up by the ground opening upon them, or been overflowed by water, or else been destroyed by such thunder as the country of Sodom perished by, for it had brought forth a generation of men much more atheistical than were those that suffered such punishments; for by their madness it was that all the people came to be destroyed.” (Wars 5.13.6.)

How Was the Mystery of Lawlessness Already at Work?

Back in 52 AD, right around the time Paul was writing about the man of lawlessness, a skirmish broke out among the Galileans and Samaritans. Seems the Samaritan town Ginea took to killing “a great many” Galileans as they traveled through Samaria for the Jewish festivals. When the Galileans sought justice from the Roman governor, procurator Cumanus did nothing, having been bribed by the Samaritans. The Galileans took justice into their own hands, enlisted a local robber baron, Eleazar (not the same guy who defected from John’s Zealots), and began raiding Samaritan villages. Cumanus sent a Roman army, who—joined by the Samaritans—quelled the raids. Jerusalem’s leadership, in sackcloth and ashes, petitioned the fighters, warning that their actions would bring about the fall of Israel, the burning of the Temple and slavery for themselves, their wives and children. For the moment, these persuasions prevailed,

“So the people dispersed themselves; and the robbers went away again to their places of strength. And after this time all Judea was over­run with robberies.” (Antiquities, 20.6.1.)

According to Josephus’ separate account of the arch-robber Eleazar in Wars (2.13.2), this season of Jews robbing Jews lasted 20 years until Nero appointed a new procurator over Judaea, Felix, who arrested Eleazar and his men, shipping them to Rome for capital punishment.

“…As to the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified, and of those who were caught among them, and whom he brought to punishment, they were a multitude not to be enumerated.”

Following these raids came the Sicarii, an extremist faction of Zealots. Zealot nationalism had been growing since Jesus’ day and its lust for liberty from Rome now eclipsed even the Mosaic Law itself. By today’s definition, the Zealots were mafia-like religious fanatics, claiming God as their head but persecuting any Jew or Gentile friendly to Rome. In 58 AD, just several years after Paul’s letter, the Sicarii Zealots—ever bolder in their thievery, political kidnappings and contract assassinations—murdered the Temple high priest, as contracted by his political adversary, the Roman procurator Felix. By their mounting corruption, sedition and rebellion, this Jewish sect who should have been dedicated to the Law of Moses, came to embody wanton lawlessness, even against their own people. This “mystery of lawlessness” was indeed “already at work” by the time Paul wrote the Thessalonians and would ultimately lead to the downfall of Israel.

False Signs and Lying Wonders?

In the KJV, verse 9 says, “Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders.” We have to ask: Will the man of lawlessness herald in these deceptions himself? Or emerge from them? Does “after” (some versions say “by the activity”) mean “in the spirit of” or will the man of lawlessness literally appear “following” these deceptions?

A little textual analysis reveals the Greek is kat’, Strong's 2596, meaning “accompanied by.” This almost helps! Though “accompanied by” reduces favoring “in the spirit of,” it doesn’t fully clarify whether the man of lawlessness worked these false signs and lying wonders himself or if he just emerged “about the same time.”

In Matthew 7:15 and in Matthew 24:24, Jesus warned the apostles of the false prophets they would have to contend with. Paul, Peter, Luke and John all report an explosion of false prophets and teachers during the tribulation of their day. In Acts 8:9-11, Luke introduces us to Simon the Magician who “amazed the people with his magic.” John reminds his readers that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1) and Peter reports, “there were false prophets also among the people” (2 Peter 2:1). Josephus points to the Sicarii Zealots as a source for much of this deception:

“These works that were done by the robbers, filled the city with all sorts of impiety. And now these impostors and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness: and pretended that they would exhibit manifest wonders and signs, that should be performed by the providence of God. And many that were prevailed on by them suffered the punishments of their folly. For Felix brought them back; and then punished them.” (Antiquities 20.8.6.)

In Acts 21:38, Paul is mistaken for an Egyptian false prophet who led a brief uprising against Jerusalem in 55 AD.

“Moreover there came out of Egypt, about this time, to Jerusalem, one that said he was a prophet; and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the mount of olives, as it was called; which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five furlongs. He said farther, that he would shew them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down: and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen, from Jerusalem; and attacked the Egyptian, and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight; but did not appear any more. And again the robbers stirred up the people to make war with the Romans; and said, they ought not to obey them at all: and when any persons would not comply with them, they set fire to their villages, and plundered them.” (Antiquities 20.8.6.)

Indeed, false signs and lying wonders continued throughout Israel’s rebellion. In 70, as the Roman legions were burning down the Temple complex, the soldiers discovered a crowd of about 6,000 people hiding among one of the covered cloisters. Before Titus could give any order to the contrary, the enraged Roman soldiers set the cloisters on fire. None survived.

“A false prophet was the occasion of these peoples’ destruction, stating, ’God commanded them to get up upon the Temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance.’ Now there was then a great number of false prophets, [bribed] by the [sedition leaders], to impose on the people: who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God; and this was in order to keep them from deserting; and that they might be buoyed up above fear and care by such hopes.” (Wars 6.5.2.)

As part of their subversion tactics, the Sicarii were trained to lie, deceive and falsely accuse (Wars 7.11.2) [3], a pattern we see in the father of lies, Satan himself (“after the working of Satan.”) Turns out, the Sicarii were behind many of the false signs and lying wonders being sold to the people throughout this time of lawlessness.

All this is why the Sicarii Zealot leader, John of Gischala, gets my vote for the man of lawlessness.

Objections to this view: John is eventually captured by Titus, whereby he is taken back to Rome, paraded as a trophy, “condemned to perpetual imprisonment,” (Wars 6.9.4) and never heard from again. With so much terror being fueled by one man, this might feel like an unsatisfactory ending for one “whom the Lord Jesus would consume with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” While we certainly see John “reduced to nothing,” the actual moment of his demise is hidden from us behind stone walls, in the bowels of a Roman prison.

Is the Man of Lawlessness the Antichrist?

No. There are two good reasons to say Paul’s son of perdition and the apostle John’s antichrists are different people. First, Paul speaks of the man of lawlessness in the singular; he has one individual in view. John, on the other hand, refers to multiple antichrists, plural. In 1 John 2:18-27, John writes of “many antichrists” and in verse 19, he says,

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

This leads us to the second point: It appears John’s antichrists refer to a group of “believers” who broke away from the Christian community in John's day. In contrast, Paul's man of lawlessness does not appear to have the Way of Truth (Jesus) as his starting point, but the Law of Moses, for one would have to abandon the Law in order to be considered lawless. Paul considered Gentiles as those “who do not have the Law” (Romans 2:14), so with great confidence, we can say that the man of lawlessness would have been from the nation of Israel. As we’ve seen throughout this lesson, Paul’s Jewish contemporary, Josephus, shares his thinking.

Who is the Man of Sin?

The man of sin is John of Gischala, a Jewish robber-baron turned Zealot leader. John fulfills Paul’s 2 Thessalonians 2 prophecy:

  • He was revealed during Israel’s Great Revolt, prior to the nation’s day of the Lord judgment in 70 AD.
  • He threw off the Mosaic Law, fueling a crime wave, famine and civil war throughout Jerusalem.
  • He positioned himself over all Israel as a despotic ruler, both symbolically and literally “taking his seat in the Temple of God,” exalting himself even over the Temple objects of worship.
  • He was “reduced to nothing” at the Lord’s coming in judgment over Israel by the hand of Rome.

A final word from Josephus:

“Yet did John [of Gischala] demonstrate by his actions that these Sicarii [of Masada] were more moderate than he was himself, for he not only slew all such as gave him good counsel to do what was right, but treated them worst of all, as the most bitter enemies that he had among all the Citizens; nay, he filled his entire country with ten thousand instances of wickedness, such as a man who was already hardened sufficiently in his impiety towards God would naturally do; for the food was unlawful that was set upon his table, and he rejected those purifications that the law of his country had ordained; so that it was no longer a wonder if he, who was so mad in his impiety towards God, did not observe any rules of gentleness and common affection towards men.” (Wars 7.8.1.)

In this talk, we

  • established a basic foundation for the timing of this prophecy,
  • covered the four different views on the son of perdition, and finally, we
  • zeroed in on Josephus’ picture of utter lawlessness in Jerusalem during the Great Revolt of Judea.

I believe, as a first-century Jewish eyewitness, Josephus is absolutely one of the best sources we have outside the Bible for understanding the trouble of those days. I believe the man of lawlessness was John of Gischala and I believe the historical account given to us by Josephus makes this clear.

I hope you have enjoyed this lesson. Remember, it’s the Truth that sets you free.



[1] “Agrippa was a pro-Roman Jewish king from the Herodian dynasty. His great grandfather was Herod the Great, who tried to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1-18). His grandfather was the Herod who imprisoned and killed John the Baptist (Luke 3:19-20; Matthew 14:1-12); and participated in Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:6-12). His father King Agrippa I (called ‘Herod’) persecuted and arrested Christians, including Peter, and executed James and John (Acts 12:1-3).” (MANNA!.)

[2] As one of the eldest high-priests of the Temple, Ananus was also a leader of the Sanhedrin, the governing body over Israel, and therefore a proponent of Christian persecution for heresy against the Mosaic Law and the Jewish religious order. As Sadducees, the Ananus family controlled the high-priesthood for almost 60 years. Though Josephus thinks highly of him, Ananus is reported as being the one to have killed James, Jesus’ brother, in 61 AD (Antiquities 20.9.1). The high-priest responsible for handing Jesus over to the Romans, Caiaphas, was also from the Ananus family line.

[3] (See also the Sicarii deceiver Jonathan who promised signs and apparitions, Wars 7.11.1.)


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